I remember a conversation with a friend, about fifteen years ago. We'd just seen the Lindsay Anderson film If.... and were talking about the bits we'd liked best. I said that I'd liked the weird bits the most. He said, 'Yeah - the bits in black and white, all the surreal stuff?' I looked a little puzzled, and gave my answer. It was a list of all the day-to-day things that happen in a public school, which its inhabitants clearly seemed to think were ordinary. Ever since I've had an enduring curiosity about what actually goes on in The Great Universities (TM) - if only in the same way an anthropologist does about a tribe of humans previously thought lost to civilisation.
The book is a memoir of Oxford but also of reading, and the importance books have played in Carey's life. It is also, as he states from the outset, a tribute to the grammar school system, long since destroyed by the kind of socialist that enjoys leaving smoking holes in his own feet. That preface is also a warning to the reader. I've quoted these words from one of Carey's earlier books before, but they're just as truthful now:
'The reader has a right to know what sort of person will be laying down the law in the rest of the book - what his quirks and prejudices are, and what sort of background has formed him [...] This would save the reader a lot of time, since he would know from the start how much of the book's contents he could automatically discount.'
Carey makes it clear what sort of background formed him. He was an accountant's son (incidentally, something he and I have in common), an occupation the Bloomsbury set loved to despise as 'clerks', as if further consideration were somehow unnecessary. As with Larkin, post-war austerity and deprivation seem to have entered his soul. Seemingly innocent objects - a mangle, a cucumber frame - stand for rare glimpses of luxury. He reads the magazines of the time -Chums, Biggles and, though not mentioned in this book, The Wide World - but never forgets the writers he discovered at Grammar school, the vivid clarity of their images.
After arriving at Oxford on a scholarship, he recalls the peculiar rituals. One involves being thought a rather spiffing sort for smashing more panes of glass than your Daddy did when he was there; another involves being carried out in a coffin in a mock funeral procession after getting expelled. The calculated rudeness, too, and what it tells you about an entire world of thought:
'One night I was sitting opposite him at dinner when he had a guest, for whose benefit he was identifying the various notables seated round the table. I heard his guest ask who I was, and [Sir Roy] Harrod replied, quite audibly, "Oh, that's nobody".'
Call this score-settling, if you like. I call it reportage, and I'd like to point out that no attempt at improving things that ignores or excuses away exchanges like this is likely to go far. The same might be said for Carey's warnings about watching more green fields vanish under concrete and sewage pipes.
From here, additional work finds his way. He tutors with 'military' robustness, determined to update and improve the syllabus. Additional work - editing Milton, moonlighting in Grub Street, judging prizes - seem to arrive almost out of the blue. A cottage is bought and renovated in the Cotsworlds; bees are lovingly kept. He writes books of his own, edits anthologies. He also meets living writers that he admires - Larkin, Graves, Heaney. Thankfully, these pieces are kept fresh, and free of hero-worship, especially the parts on Graves' rather dotty assertions.
I enjoyed the book for its outsider's take on Oxford and for Carey's punchy, vivid style. Not all of the material is fresh - some comes almost verbatim from earlier essays - but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Throwing crusts of bread from the Hammersmith Bridge results in a 'swooping, screaming tornado of beaks and feathers'. During an exam, the sheets of paper 'flared up at you like arc lamps'; a house damaged by bombing 'lost its entire wall on the street side, exposing all its rooms with their furniture still in place, like a doll's house with the front lifted off'. Bees land in the darkness of their hive, the orange pollen on their back legs 'shining like brake lights.'
He can surprise you, too. Although Carey owns up that book awards are well-meaning lotteries, not infallible exercises in recognising merit, he is honest enough to share his feelings on being awarded the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, and this touching bit of self-depreciation: 'Academic matters apart, I had not won anything since the Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys cross-country run some fifty-eight years before.' Curiously, his favourites among the thousand or so books he has reviewed for the Sunday Times are largely non-fiction. Among those are John Osborne's virulently angry autobiographies, rather than Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, or Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs.
Now the flaws. They're few, in truth. Attractive as Carey's anti-luxury stance can be, I like to think I'm not the only one who finds it a bit much when he savages aftershave as 'foppish', as if not stinking is an affront to basic human decency. When mentioning the work of the 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Carey gets his name wrong. When Carey complains about the reviews for The Intellectuals and the Masses, I recall more sympathetic reviews than he seems to (such as Ian Hamilton's). While I've described Joyce's Ulysses as a handful of diamonds sprinkled over a slag heap, I haven't forgotten that Orwell couldn't read it without feeling 'an inferiority complex', nor that he aped its multiple-style approach in his second novel.
These minor gripes aside, if reading punctures 'pomp' and and 'makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary', Carey has excelled at both here. I sincerely hope this will not be his last book.